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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Reefer Madness on Campus and Park Avenue

Reefer Madness

On Thursday, October 31, The Nation will publish a special issue about marijuana, with our first-ever endorsement of national legalization. But as early as 1966, Nation contributors were questioning the fundamental assumptions of marijuana prohibition, as well as the cultural attitudes and government policies that culminated in Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971.

In “Drugs on Campus: Turned On and Tuned Out” (January 31, 1966), Mervin Freedman and Harvey Powelson, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, respectively, questioned whether the growing use of drugs in the American counter-culture was really as alarming a development as mainstream authorities were making it seem:

It is difficult to fashion a serious case against smoking marijuana except that a user will find himself in serious trouble if he is caught by the police. The effects on society at large, were pot smoking to be as ubiquitous as the consumption of alcohol, are unknown, but within the current limits of use, there is little evidence that marijuana damages the individuals who smoke it.

Freedman and Powelson also wrote about the political meaning of marijuana and hinted that prohibition was counter-effective, as it only heightened the drug’s allure:

The consistent pot smokers are for the most part graduate students in the arts, philosophy, the humanities and, to some extent, in the social sciences. The rebellion they express in many ways, pot smoking among them, stems from their disillusion with American life and values…. Aside from enjoying pot’s intrinsic satisfactions—relaxation, heightened sensibility, etc.—these students get pleasure from sharing a rebellious, illegal activity. The more rebellious or ‘anti’ the movement, the greater the likelihood that pot smokers will be drawn to it.

But within a few years pot went mainstream, as the novelist Maitland Zane wrote in “Turning on in Society” (December 7, 1970).

Remember the hip flasks of Prohibition? Nowadays on Park Avenue and in Pacific Heights the daring fashion is to smoke grass. Thirty years ago, virtually the only people who smoked tea, as it was then called, were outcasts—jazz musicians, artists, blacks, Mexican-Americans. Even in the early 1960s, pot smoking was considered by most middle-class white people to be outré, scandalous, dangerous, criminal. Then came The Pill, Vietnam, rock music, sexual liberation, widespread alienation from the American of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon…Nowadays it’s not just the longhairs of Cambridge and Berkeley who are into marijuana. It’s also their little brothers and sisters, some as young as 9. And for the first time, their parents—and grandparents…

San Francisco, with an enormous population of homosexuals, is tolerant of “deviant” behavior, and this extends to pot smokers. Nowadays, instead of being jailed, they’re routinely put on probation. Fourteen hundred otherwise law-abiding people were dealt with in that way during the first nine months of 1970.

Drug policy has only grown more repressive in the past forty-three years, criminalizing thousands upon thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens and handing out punishments much harsher than mere probation. Our special issue next week will highlight prohibition’s pernicious effects—as we did in two previous special issues on drug policy in 1999 and 2010—and will look at the history of the legalization movement and plot new strategies for taking it national in a progressive, humane and responsible way.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

One Year After Sandy—Ignoring Climate Change at Our Own Peril

A man walks through piles of debris left by Hurricane Sandy in Queens.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

It’s been one year since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the eastern coast of the United States, affecting twenty-four states and devastating parts of New Jersey and New York. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Millions were left without power. As many as 100 people died; most of whom drowned as the storm surged in Staten Island and Queens. At $65 billion, Sandy was the second costliest storm in US history.

Today, communities that were reduced to rubble are steadily recovering. And yet, one year later, policymakers have yet to address climate change, which undoubtedly contributed to the strength, magnitude and danger of Sandy. There is little discussion of rebuilding in a way that better prepares us for the ravages of future storms. And after Washington’s most recent shameful display of deadlock and dysfunction, it would be wishful thinking to presume that Congress will act on this issue anytime soon.

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That’s why last week’s Roosevelt Institute Four Freedoms awards ceremony was all the more significant for honoring someone who has devoted his life to the stewardship of our planet—legendary humanist, poet, essayist, novelist, fifth-generation Kentucky farmer and activist Wendell Berry.

Over the course of his life, Berry has written and spoken about a number of issues, including war, corporate corruption and the death penalty. But it is his work as an environmental activist and advocate of small-scale sustainable agriculture that has, perhaps, had the greatest impact on our national conversation.

Berry picked up where Thoreau left off, providing, as Michael Pollan has written, “a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture.” And in teaching us to cultivate our own gardens, and reap the wild in our own backyards, Berry “marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.”

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Wendell Berry’s Humanism and Wisdom for Our Times


Wendell Berry talking to a reporter after he was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Last week, the Roosevelt Institute, as part of its annual Four Freedoms awards ceremony, presented its Freedom Medal to the Kentucky writer, farmer, environmentalist, humanist and activist Wendell Berry—a longtime Nation contributor.

“Whether Wendell Berry is writing poetry, fiction, or essays,” the Institute declared, “his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.”

In over two dozen poems, essays, and book reviews he has published in The Nation since 1961, Berry has connected America’s democratic health with its ecological health, the degradation of its discourse with the degradation of its soil, and has done so with a unique combination of elegance, clarity of language and purpose, and simple—though never simplistic—common sense. Berry is as adept detailing the mechanics of a mine-triggered landslide as he is at critiquing the dangerous combination of ideology and profit motive which caused it to occur.

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One of Berry’s earliest Nation contributions was the poem “November 26, 1963,” about the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy:

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…

In 1966, Berry published a scathing essay, “Strip-Mine Morality: The Landscaping of Hell,” about the efforts in his native Kentucky to regulate and hopefully prohibit that most excessively and permanently damaging method of mining coal. Berry attended several meetings at which proposed regulations were presented and was aghast at the coal companies’ blatantly duplicitous and selfish arguments:

The testimony of the expert witnesses who appeared in behalf of the companies was peculiarly clouded and disordered by the assumptions and intentions of the company lawyers, and by the testimony of several coal operators who also appeared as witnesses. There was a very obvious intent to use scientific evidence to prove that the best method of mining is the one that is most profitable, and that the best method of reclamation is the one that is cheapest. There was much yielding to the temptation to present theory and opinion as fact, and to look upon the failure to discover a remedy as proof that there is no remedy…

There was in the statements and questions of the coal company attorneys, and in the testimony of the operators, the unmistakable implication that anything can be justified by profit; that a man may own the land in the same sense in which he would own a piece of furniture or a suit of clothes, it is his to exploit, misuse or destroy altogether should he decide that to do so would be economically feasible. The question of the morality of any practice, for these men, has been completely replaced by the question of its profitability: if it makes money it is good; if it makes money for them they are doomed and eager to defend it. Evident in the testimony of some was the assumption that the steep mountain sides, now being ruined on an almost unbelievable scale and at great speed, are good for nothing else.

Nobody has written as profoundly as Berry about the implications of that assumption not only on the surface of the land, but also just beneath the surface of the American soul.

The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was, it will never be what it would have become if let alone. Such destruction—which can now be accomplished on a vast scale by a few men in a short time—makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings. Those men who send the bulldozer blades into the mountainsides bear the awesome burden of responsibility for an act that no one can fully comprehend, much less justify.

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In a brilliant essay published in two issues of The Nation in February 1976, “The Unsettling of America,” Berry analyzed and historically contextualized the “tendency…to complete the deliverance of American agriculture into the hands of the corporations.”

The cost of this corporate totalitarianism in energy, land and social disruption will be enormous. It will lead to the exhaustion of the farm land and the farm culture. Husbandry will become an extractive industry; the fertility of the soil, because maintenance will entirely give way to production, will become a limited and nonrenewable resource, like coal or oil.

This may not happen. It need not happen. But it is necessary to recognize that it can happen…. If it does happen, we are familiar enough with the nature of American salesmanship to know that it will be done in the name of the starving millions, in the name of liberty, justice, democracy and brotherhood, and to free the world from communism. We must, I think, be prepared to see, and to stand by, the truth: that the land should not be destroyed for any reason, not even for any apparently good reason.

In the second installment, Berry wrote that “the growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of handiwork.”

But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to use counsels otherwise. It counsels us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis—only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.

Thus we can see growing out of our history a condition that is physically dangerous, morally repugnant, ugly. Contrary to the blandishments of the salesmen, it is not particularly comfortable or happy. It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are being rapidly exhausted by its methods. Only to see these things is to come up against the question: then what is desirable?

One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry, who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy: domestic oil fields, shale oil, gasified coal, nuclear energy, solar energy and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil-fuel energy. Nuclear power is presumably now going to be used benignly by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied manpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively too, for the same reasons.

Perhaps all of those sources of energy are going to be developed. Perhaps all of them can sooner or later be developed without threatening our survival. But not all of them together can guarantee our survival, and they cannot define what is desirable. We will not find those answers in Washington, D.C., or in the laboratories of oil companies. In order to find them, we will have to look closer to ourselves.

Berry’s most recent—though hopefully not his last—Nation contribution came in our 2006 special issue on food, guest edited by Alice Waters. Berry noted that recent decades’ surplus of food and money to buy it could soon come to an end, as “most of our food is now produced by industrial agriculture, which has proved to be immensely productive, but at the cost of destroying the means of production.” He decried Americans’ widespread ignorance about food production “endemic to our society and economy,” while hopefully noting signs that “some urban consumers are venturing into an authentic knowledge of food and food production.” Increasing knowledge would create pressure for a change in farming methods, Berry predicted, but was skeptical as to “whether or not it can come soon enough to avert hunger proportionate to our present ignorance.”

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Three years later, one of Berry’s co-contributors to Waters’ forum, Michael Pollan, wrote in an appreciation of “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom” (September 29, 2009) that Berry had

marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants…. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started…All those taking part in that conversation, whether in the White House or at the farmers’ market, are deep in his debt.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The Right Is Still Setting the Terms of the Debate


The government shutdown is in its third week with no end in sight and there are signs that the United States is closer to the first default in the nation’s history. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The government remains closed. The unimaginable—default on our national debt—looms, with unknown but foreboding consequence. Tea Party Republicans remain willing to undermine trust in the full faith and credit of the United States in this unnecessary and manufactured crisis. And for some, the impending calamity seems to increase rather than temper their lunacy. At the right-wing Values Voter Summit this week, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that if Republicans refuse to lift the debt ceiling and the United States defaults, it would be an impeachable offense by the president. Go figure.

In Washington, this folly is measured by poll numbers. Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party, are “losing” because their public approval numbers have plummeted. Republicans are said to have “surrendered,” since they abandoned their threat to default on US debts unless Democrats agreed to defund or delay Obamacare. Now Senate Republicans are offering to reopen the government and fund it at current levels only until mid-January. Supporters of the deal argue that it would allow for negotiations on a real budget before the next harsh across-the-board sequester cuts kick in, but it means that Republicans will use the threat of the sequester—and the next round of the debt ceiling showdown—to exact longer-term cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

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Surrender? Any more “victories” like this, and Democrats will end up paying annual tribute to Republican party coffers. If Democrats accept these terms, it will only encourage Republicans to hold the country hostage over and over again.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Our Nobel Peace Prize–Winning Writers (and One Editor)


Nobel laureate and Nation writer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

The Nobel Committee announced yesterday that this year’s Peace Prize is going to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, one of many significant international institutions critical to averting the escalation of war, promoting alternatives to military conflict and building a world free of the most dangerous weapons. The committee’s choice this year is similar to its 2005 selection of the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Mohammed El-Baradei, of whom we wrote at the time: “One can think of no more deserving winner of a prize for peace than a man who exemplified a clear, sensible, sane alternative to war.” The same could be said of the OPCW today. The sixteen-year-old group ordinarily operates below the radar but has achieved new prominence due to the resurgence of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria—efforts this magazine has fervently supported.

Since the first prize was awarded in 1901, The Nation has published the writings of over a dozen Nobel Peace Prize winners. Our most famous Prize-winning writer was also, for a time, our most regular: from 1961 through 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published annual reports on the civil rights movement in The Nation, some of which can be read here. Other Nobel contributions include several by Sir Norman Angell, British co-founder of the anti-militarist Union for Democratic Control (“Leftism in the Atomic Age,” 5/11/1946); an early book review by Elie Wiesel (“From Exile to Exile,” (4/25/1966); and an article by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt about the perception of the US by the world (“A Revolutionary Republic,” 3/22/1986). More recent Prize-winning contributors included former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev on the failures of his successor, Boris Yeltsin, and last year’s Comment by three Nobel laureates—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel—on what they called the “persecution” faced by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning at the hands of the US government.

In 1946, The Nation had the honor of seeing a former staff editor win the Peace Prize when Emily Greene Balch, who helped run the magazine’s International Relations Supplement from 1918–19, was honored for her work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915 to build grassroots support against the World War. Balch shared the Prize with YMCA leader John Raleigh Mott.

After becoming one of the first graduates of Bryn Mawr College, Balch studied sociology and economics in Europe. In 1891, at just 24 years old, Balch made her first contribution to The Nation in a long and rigorous dispatch about a new law in France aimed at eliminating regressive property taxes.

Let it be added that the two chief promoters of this reform stand for constituencies which will henceforward have heavier tax-bills to meet, and which may not appreciate the honorable disinterestedness and public spirit of their representatives. But at least these gentlemen and all who have joined in the good work may feel that they have taken their part in freeing France not only from a material cause of distress, but from a reproach to her honor and her justice.

After returning to the United States, Balch joined the faculty of Wellesley College and became a professor of sociology and economics in 1913. When hostilities broke out in Europe the following year, Balch immersed herself in the pacifist effort to keep the United States out of the war, helping to found the WILPF—another prominent leader of which, Jane Addams, would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

After Wellesley terminated her professorship in 1918 due to her vociferous antiwar activism, The Nation’s pacifist editor Oswald Garrison Villard immediately hired Balch to help reinvigorate the magazine as the standard-bearer of American liberalism and to publicize the antiwar cause.

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She helped edit the new foreign affairs section with future Nation editor-in-chief and publisher Freda Kirchwey and wrote unsigned editorial blurbs for the magazine. Kirchwey’s biographer Sara Alpern has written that Balch was known in the office for “absently nibbling raisins as she read clippings” and for her voracious knowledge of international relations; Kirchwey admired Bluck’s intelligence and courage, calling her “the least self-conscious woman” she had ever met. Differing with Villard’s fervent stance, on anti-imperialist grounds, against the League of Nations, Balch left the magazine in 1919 and joined the Women’s International League full-time. The organization became a major force in the international peace movement and, based in Geneva, still thrives today. When The Nation marks its 150th anniversary in 2015, WILPF will celebrate its 100th.

When Balch won the Nobel in 1946, John Herman Randall Jr., a philosophy professor at Columbia, wrote in The Nation that the selection of its former editor showed that the Nobel Committee, in eschewing its ordinary selections of various statesmen, had “recognized how much private citizens can contribute to the conditions for international peace.” He wrote of Balch:

Never the narrow partisan of a single method, she has always gladly cooperated with organizations of very different shades of opinion, convinced that all are needed in the work of constructing peace and that in a pluralistic and not too centralized movement they can learn much from one another. With her dry and kindly sense of humor, her modesty, her integrity of mind, and above all with that priceless quality of spiritual intensity and vision, she has won the respect of sincere workers for peace everywhere. And in her they have all received recognition.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Mitch McConnell’s Moneyocracy


Senate Minority Leader Addison “Mitch” McConnell of Kentucky. (AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

For a man who has spent his entire career preaching the gospel of lower taxes, it’s astounding how much Mitch McConnell wants your money.

Sen. McConnell’s zeal is impressive, but not surprising. He’s about to enter the most difficult election of his career—and he’s going to need every last penny.

To his right, he faces Matt Bevin—a conservative millionaire flush with the support of the tea party. To his left, he faces Alison Lundergan Grimes—a popular secretary of state with deep family ties to Kentucky. The experts currently call their race a toss-up.

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So, while McConnell already has an imposing $9.5 million cash on hand, it’s not enough in a race that some predict could cost as much $100 million. And now, astonishingly, he’s turning to the Supreme Court to get it.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Eighty Years of Opposition to Universal and Affordable Healthcare


A 2009 rally in which advocates of a single-payer health care system gathered in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

The mind continues to boggle at the fact that House Republicans have actually shut down the federal government in an attempt to prevent the expansion of affordable healthcare to millions of vulnerable Americans. But corporate and conservative opposition to universal coverage has existed since the 1930s, when many supported including national health insurance in the Social Security Act and Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York proposed what we would now call Medicare-for-all. Campaigns to defeat what Nation contributor Leonard Robins called in 1978 “the last great unfinished piece of welfare legislation envisioned in Roosevelt’s New Deal” have always been backed by untold sums of corporate money and marked by a notably consistent streak of red-baiting rhetoric and doom-saying predictions.

In “Who Fights Health Insurance?” (June 23, 1945), the journalist Geraldine Sartain wrote about the efforts of the administration of Harry Truman to resurrect the pre-war national health insurance proposals, and the fierce opposition from industry:

The battle against health insurance is on again, this time characterized by several new developments. The most important of these are the advertising campaigns promoted by the organized medical profession in its last-ditch stand against what it calls “socialized medicine.”

Sartain noted that the American Medical Association had taken out six paid advertisements urging newspaper and magazine editors to

tell the American people what perils await them: that their “priceless heritage,” the private-enterprise system, is endangered; that “the sacred relationship between doctor and patient” is similarly threatened (no mention is made of the millions of our people who have virtually no relationship with doctors, sacred or otherwise, because they haven’t the money to pay for it); that “the sanctity of human personality” will be undermined; that doctors are “to be regimented and made subordinate to the bureaucrat, and the people forced by law to accept such medical care as could be provided by a politically appointed bureaucrat.”

The advertising campaign added that national insurance would be “a fatal step toward complete totalitarian control over the lives and destinies of all men.” Sound familiar?

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Forty-eight years later, as another new Democratic president struggled to reform healthcare so as to provide universal coverage, The Nation’s Washington editor David Corn wrote in “Big Players vs. Single-Payer” (April 26, 1993) about the efforts by the insurance industry and the AMA to derail single-payer proposals, then enjoying 70 percent approval among the American people.

The realists among the single-payer activists are trying to figure out how to nudge whatever plan arises from the White House closer to their ideal. It won’t be easy. In the frenzy of lobbying to come, they must spark public cries of support that can be heard above the special interest din and scare the hell out of legislators.

Later on, pro-single-payer members of Congress will have to decide where to draw the line. The President’s plan—what-ever it is eventually dubbed—may address some of their de­mands, and single-payer legislators may be able to shape the bill during the debate in Congress. But at some point they may face the question, Is the prevailing reform worth their votes? Should they settle for, say, managed competition with univer­sal access, cost controls and a decent minimum-benefits package as the best that can be achieved at this time?

Nothing will be decided soon. Revamping one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy will not happen fast—it may not even happen this year, if it happens at all. The political sys­tem can confront such a heavy reform job only once every few decades; it would be nice if Washington got it right the first time. But the probable outcome is halfway reform that does not challenge too profoundly the prerogatives of the power­ful. If after that Americans still perceive the health care sys­tem to be in crisis, the single-payers may get their shot.

The Clintons, of course, proved tragically receptive to the campaign against single-payer and the reform effort went down in flames. Four years ago, the movement for single-payer healthcare faced even stronger headwinds and President Obama eventually dropped even the “public option” that, perhaps not coincidentally, enjoyed the same 70 percent support level among Americans as the single-payer plan had sixteen years earlier and was called “needed but…by no means sufficient” by this magazine. Yet even the highly compromised Affordable Care Act produced hysterical cries of socialism and death panels—and now an across-the-board government shutdown—from the same crew that has been making the same baseless, fear-mongering arguments for the past eighty years. As for the future time when Corn predicted universal health insurance might actually be tried, all we can say is: hasten the day.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

American Exceptionalism, According to Oliver Stone


Oliver Stone. (Courtesy of Showtime)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Oliver Stone’s 10-hour documentary series, The Untold History of The United States, which first appeared on Showtime in 2012, is about to be rereleased this month on DVD with three new episodes and a post-series conversation between Stone and his frequent collaborator, author and activist Tariq Ali.

The series, which is remarkably free of talking heads and offers a treasure trove of historical footage, kicks off with an alternative narrative of the Cold War. Like many historians, Stone believes that, had Franklin Roosevelt lived, he might have avoided the Cold War. If the Democrats had not dumped Vice President Henry Wallace in favor of Harry Truman in 1944, Stone contends, Wallace would have carried on FDR’s policies and “there might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race and no cold war.

Untold History is full of such tantalizing what-ifs. What if Kennedy had lived? Would there have been a Vietnam War? What if George W. Bush had taken the advice of US intelligence operatives more seriously before the 9/11 attacks? Could the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq have been avoided?

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Most historians tend to avoid this “counterfactual” or “what if” history, but these alternative scenarios provide thought exercises that help us consider what might have happened if history had taken a radically different course. They make us more aware of the missed opportunities, the roads not taken. They challenge the prevailing orthodoxy and narrow consensus of our contemporary political debate. And they teach us about the past so that we can learn from it.

Stone has said that in high school and college he was taught a “Disneyfied” version of American history. He resolved to use his talents as a filmmaker to challenge that version. This he has done through popular fictionalized history and political films such as Salvador, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street and its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

As he and his collaborator Peter Kuznick wrote, “Historically-challenged students turn into historically-challenged adults who make for unqualified citizens. Our republican system requires a literate, educated, and knowledgeable public.” Unfortunately, today’s students “know very little history. Second, much of what they do learn is extremely partial or flat out wrong.”

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Government Shutdown as Coup d’État


The US Capitol. (Wikipedia / Ingfbruno)

It’s beginning to look a lot like 1995, with Congress again bringing the country perilously close to a government shutdown. Despite the House Republicans’ quixotic attempt to tie the funding of basic services to the repeal of Obamacare, Karl Rove himself calling such a tactic “ill-conceived,” and, finally, last week’s pointless exhibition of endurance by Ted Cruz’s bladder, it appears the Republican Party is about to crown itself with the highly dubious distinction of having once again dragged the US government to a new low of impotence, paralysis and dysfunction.

That is not an accidental consequence of “divided government…unable to settle its differences,” as one reporter suggested, noting the 1995 parallel. Rather, dramatizing the supposed precariousness of public services by forcing their arbitrary cessation makes it easier for conservatives to argue that the market alone should determine the proper distribution of wealth, goods, and services in American society. There is no smaller government than none at all. As the radical political philosopher Sheldon Wolin argued in a remarkable 1996 essay in The Nation, “Democracy and the Counterrevolution,” the effort “to stop or reconstitute government in order to extract sweeping policy concessions amounts to an attempted coup d’état.” Wolin’s brilliant essay reminds us how shutdowns and austerity economics fit within the broader Republican philosophy of governance—or lack thereof—and how that philosophy is antithetical to the defining principle of democracy: rule by the people.

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Last winter’s government shutdown, contrary to media reports, was not about innocent bystanders—government workers, recipients of benefits or tourists—however genuine their hardships. It was about the broad scheme of power in the nation. Under what was dismissed as posturing, serious political changes were being tested. If we ask, “What kind of authority could justify disrupting and holding an allegedly democratic system hostage in the name of ‘a balanced budget in seven years’ and then attempt to dictate the precise kind and amount of government services that are to be permitted to resume?” the answer is not: “The authority of officials elected to run the government.” Deliberately paralyzing an elected government is far different from the ordinary partisanship that attends appropriations.

The shutdown was, instead, a direct challenge to the principle that in a democracy the government belongs to the people. It is theirs either to reconstitute by prescribed means, such as the amending process, or to halt by resistance or disobedience if it governs tyrannically. For the President or Congress to undertake to stop or reconstitute government in order to extract sweeping policy concessions amounts to an attempted coup d’état by what The Federalist (normally the political bible of Gingrich and other self-styled conservatives) would have condemned as a “temporary majority.”

Media observers suggested hopefully that the confrontation between Democratic President and Republican Congress might usefully be carried forward to November when “the people” could decide whether they wanted an interventionist or a greatly reduced government. That very formulation implied yet another potentially dangerous conception: that national elections should not be primarily about choosing leaders or expressing party preferences but should serve to focus a Great Issue and force a crucial turning point. The correct name for that conception is “plebiscitary democracy,” and it represents an outlook that is profoundly anti-democratic. Consider what social and economic forces would frame the terms of the plebiscite, or the level of debate that would take place, or the inflated mandate that the victors would claim or the implications of such an event for reinforcing the idea of the citizen as a spectator ready to salivate at the mention of tax cuts. Unfortunately, plebiscitary democracy is not a farfetched notion but a short, highly cost-effective step from the “democracy” quadrennially produced by those who organize, finance and orchestrate elections. Given what elections have become, the effect of national plebiscites on the fundamental shape of government should give pause to anyone who cares about the prospects of democracy.

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A vote on the role of government appears in an ominous light if we recall that when the Congressional Republicans announced their determination to “shut down Washington” and democracy’s government was nearly paralyzed, there was no mass protest, no million-citizen march on Washington, no demand to reclaim what is guaranteed by the Constitution. At a meeting of freshman Republican Representatives, someone reportedly asked, “Anybody got problems back home with the fact that the government’s shut down?” Not a hand was raised.

The lack of response testifies to the truly terrifying pace at which depoliticization is being promoted and the depths of the alienation separating citizens from their government. Each national election serves to deepen the contempt of voters for a system that they know is corrupt, and they doubt it can be remedied by requiring lobbyists to register. Despair is rooted in powerlessness, and powerlessness is not an unintended but a calculated consequence of the system, of which cash bribes to encourage poor African-Americans of New Jersey not to vote—a Republican campaign strategy in 1993 boasted about by Christine Todd Whitman’s campaign manager, Ed Rollins—supplied a crude instance. “Balancing the budget” is not simply about forcing government to live within its means “like the rest of us.” The projected cuts in education, social services and health care strike at the political power of ordinary Americans as well as their standard of living.

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The complete text of Wolin’s 1996 essay can be found here. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The Case for Gun Liability Laws


(AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Knives. Automobiles. Cold medicine. Alcohol. Cigarettes. Coffee.

What do these items have in common?

They’re all held to a higher safety standard than firearms.

Because of product-liability law, manufacturers must equip them with proper warnings, limitations and built-in designs that enhance their safety.

If they don’t, consumers can sue them for harm caused by the product. And all consumer products manufacturers are required to ensure that their products are free of design defects and don’t threaten public safety.

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Guns, as Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project has said, are “the only consumer product in America with no federal safety oversight.”

Firearms haven’t always been a protected class; but as the industry lost millions in lawsuits over the years, liability protection became the NRA’s holy grail.

Before 2005, the Brady Center — named for President Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, who was shot and paralyzed in a failed assassination attempt on the president — had launched multiple lawsuits around the country. Los Angeles, New York and 30 other cities, counties and states had filed civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers — including a $100 million suit against the gun industry by Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1999. The pain inflicted on negligent manufacturers was real and it was expensive. In 2003, Bryco Arms declared bankruptcy after paying $24 million in the case of a 7-year-old boy who was paralyzed by a defective gun.

Before the gun lobby successfully killed all gun control legislation, there were some key wins in the fight to hold gun manufacturers liable. Last year, the New York State appellate court ruled that a Buffalo man who was shot nearly a decade ago could sue the gun manufacturer, distributor and dealer. In January 2013, Rep. Adam Schiff introduced legislation to fight legal immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers, the Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

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